Veterans: Beatrice and Murray Safran: From New York to Jerusalem

Murray Safran: After two months in Israel, and my wife's example, when we came back to New York I put on a kippa and became religiously observant.

Murray Safran 88 248 (photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Murray Safran 88 248
(photo credit: Abigail Klein)
It's been 70 years since Murray Safran met the girl of his dreams at a synagogue dance in the Bronx. "She was a religious Zionist and I was the opposite, an agnostic socialist," says Murray, who at 87 still gets a glint in his blue eyes when he looks at his wife, Beatrice. "But we hit it off and she pursued me until she caught me." While many immigrants have had to learn the concept of savlanut - patience - upon their arrival, the Safrans already had plenty of it. Despite a three-year courtship and a nearly four-year engagement, they stuck together. Despite divergent beliefs and practices, they respected each other's differences until reaching common ground 20 years into their marriage. LIFE BEFORE ISRAEL A product of the Great Depression, Murray Safran had no job and no academic ambitions until World War II intervened. Drafted in 1942, he proposed to Bea before setting out on the Liberty transport ship for North Africa. "I gave her the smallest diamond in history and then I went to war," he says. "Bea wrote me every day. Every day. It was embarrassing, but it was good." He did not return to his fiancée until early in 1946. They got married five weeks later, found an apartment in the Bronx, and went to work - he in a stationery store, she as a secretary. Thanks to the GI Bill, which provided free tuition for veterans, Murray completed two years at Pace Institute (now Pace University) and then went into the stationery store business for himself. They had three children - Judith, Hal and Deborah. The children grew up with the understanding that their father went to work on Shabbat and their mother took them to synagogue. "We never discussed religious practice," says Bea. Around 1960, the stationery store was failing and Murray decided to go to night school for a teaching degree. A few years later, he went back to school again to become certified as a guidance counselor. He worked in the public school system in Harlem. "All his friends became principals, and that came with a raise in salary," says Bea, "but he wanted to work directly with children." In the summer of 1966, the Safrans set off for their first trip to Israel. They could not afford to take all three children, so they left the older two with family and took Deborah, who had cerebral palsy. Murray came home a changed man. "After two months in Israel, and my wife's constant example, when we came back to New York I put on a kippa and became religiously observant," he says. PREPARING FOR ALIYA By 1973, the Safrans had added two more children to their family - Aaron and Sari - and were ready to take a six-month sabbatical in Israel. The two oldest children once again stayed behind; Judith was already married and Hal was completing his education. "We found an apartment in Sanhedria Murhevet, which was a religious Zionist neighborhood then, and just perfect for us," says Murray. "We traveled around and soaked up the atmosphere, and decided to make aliya," says Bea. Tragically, during this time their daughter Deborah died at the age of 19. Back in New York, Murray planned for an early retirement in another four years, even though that meant he'd be getting a smaller pension. He became president of the North American Aliya Movement, "a 'huge' movement of 2,500 people," he says. "Most of them did not make aliya in the end," adds Bea. "One couple told us that his parents said, 'If you don't go, I'll buy a house for you. A car. Anything you want.' They didn't want their children to leave." ARRIVAL On August 30, 1977, Bea and the two youngest children arrived at an absorption center in Ashkelon. Murray followed a week later, after finishing his summer job directing a college guidance program for disabled and disadvantaged adults. They knew no one in Ashkelon and had no family in Israel. "Sari was unhappy when she was older, because all her friends were going to their grandparents and aunts and uncles, but we had no relatives here," says Bea. Helping their kids with homework proved daunting, as both of them struggled to learn Hebrew. They remained in Ashkelon for about six months, and then moved to an apartment in Sanhedria Murhevet that they'd bought earlier, sight unseen, over the phone from America. SETTLING IN Bea became an English secretary for the Diaspora Yeshiva in the Old City and then at Hebrew University. Murray got a job as a guidance counselor at Goldstein Youth Village in Jerusalem. "A guidance counselor is supposed to understand what the student isn't saying," he relates. "I didn't understand what he was saying! So I left after a few months and started teaching history at American post-high school yeshivas." Later, he became an English tutor to about 40 students in their heavily Anglo neighborhood. From the time of their arrival, Murray volunteered with the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) and still sits on its board. He headed its Jerusalem branch for six years, setting up programs for new olim such as an ulpan, a job center and counseling. He is especially proud of a long-running English tutoring program for Russian immigrants that he initiated at the request of the Jewish Agency. DAILY LIFE About 12 years ago, the Safrans moved to Ma'alot Dafna near Ammunition Hill. Since retiring, Bea has been volunteering for a variety of causes, and belongs to charitable organizations including Emunah Women, AMIT and Na'amat. Murray's AACI work was curtailed by a stroke two years ago that left him with difficulty walking. His disability has been an eye-opener, he says. "It's an entirely different life. I go to the bank with my wife or my helper, and if the bank clerk has a question, she doesn't ask me; she asks her or him. I have to say, 'Talk to me.' This is a real issue for people in a wheelchair, because people think you're mentally handicapped too." He wrote a letter to The Jerusalem Post about this situation, emulating his wife's longtime penchant for tackling problems with her pen and telephone. Among the issues Bea has addressed are the lack of signs and benches at bus stops, and the absence of a handrail on a 100-step staircase in their old neighborhood. "One time, Bea called the sanitation department and the woman on the other end said, 'Ah, Giveret Safran, your Hebrew is improving!'" recalls Murray with a laugh. The Safrans are in close touch with their children and 10 grandchildren. Murray is in the midst of writing his autobiography through a free program at Yad Sarah, with the goal of giving copies to their descendants. "Judith is married to an American Jew, Hal is married to an Iranian Jew, Aaron is married to a Russian Jew and Sari is married to a Yemenite Jew," says Murray. All of them are American residents except Sari and her husband and three sons, who live in Modi'in.